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How Activity Helps to Relieve Fatigue

Jennifer A. Ligibel, MD

Jennifer A. Ligibel, MD

When you’re already feeling tired, how is it possible that spending more energy to be physically active can give you more energy? Here is what researchers are discovering about how moving more works to boost survivors’ vitality.

Fatigue is one of the most common side effects that cancer survivors experience. According to Jennifer A. Ligibel, MD, at Dana Farber Cancer Institute, many things may contribute to fatigue among survivors.

"Fatigue in cancer survivors is a complex process," Dr. Ligibel says. "There are many aspects of cancer diagnosis and treatment that can contribute to fatigue. We do not understand why some patients experience fatigue and others do not, but fatigue is clearly a common problem in cancer survivors and can last for years after cancer treatment has ended," she says.

"However, as complex as fatigue in cancer survivors can be, the striking thing is how consistent the benefits of physical activity are. It clearly helps people recover their energy."

Hundreds of studies are now investigating the effects of physical activity on cancer survivors in different settings and patient populations and using different types of physical activity – walking, strength training, dragon boat racing, tai chi and yoga. Dr. Ligibel says that, so far, one thing is clear: physical activity is reported to be consistently helpful.

Keeping It Up

How Physical Activity Works

The pathways through which physical activity improves energy levels in cancer survivors are not understood very well. But studies show that physical activity can reduce anxiety and depression, which can contribute to fatigue. Physical activity can help build lean muscle mass and reduce side effects of cancer treatment like deconditioning, another possible cause of feeling tired during and after cancer therapy.

"Changing behavior and sticking with it is not easy," notes Dr. Ligibel. "And cancer survivors may have additional barriers to increasing physical activity due to the side effects of their cancer treatment."

However, being patient yields rewards. "It takes some time – people who have not been active may struggle at first, just as with a change to healthier eating," Dr. Ligibel explains. "You have to train your body to be more active. That’s why it’s hard to start programs. Without proper support, so many people give up. But over time, it starts to feel good."

She urges survivors to check with their health care provider before starting a physical activity program, but notes that most cancer survivors can start a moderate-intensity physical activity program, such as walking, on their own without additional medical evaluation (like a stress test) and without the need for a trainer.

For people who are interested in more intensive physical activity, like weight lifting, there are many community-based exercise programs for cancer survivors. The American College of Sport Medicine also has a program to certify trainers for work with oncology patients to find a certified specialist near you, or call 317-637-9200, Eastern Time, Monday-Friday.

If you have not been physical active recently, it is important to start slowly. You could start with 10-minute bouts of moderately paced walking, then build up to more. If you are suddenly much more active at the outset, you can get too fatigued to continue. But any physical activity is better than none!

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